Leonard Bernstein: Biography, Compositions & Musicals

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Leonard Bernstein was an influential American composer and pianist, and a famous conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In this lesson, we will take a look at the life and works of this remarkable musical icon.

Leonard Bernstein - A Brief Biography

Leonard Bernstein was born in Massachusetts, on August 25th, 1918. His parents changed his name from Louis to Leonard when he was 15, because his grandmother, who insisted he be called Louis, had died. He started studying the piano at a young age, and eventually attended Harvard where he studied music. He later returned to Harvard to give a series of lectures that just about every music student watches or listens to during their theory class.

His musical development was rather uneventful. He had many piano teachers, none of historical note. His major breakthrough happened by chance, as we'll see, and he always wanted his music to be accessible to everyone, not just the elite.

Bernstein was a social activist and a progressive; Time called him the 'Renaissance Man'. He was called a communist by the journal Counterattack, and the FBI even had a file on him. He was a staunch advocate for the arts in education, eventually setting up the Bernstein Education Through the Arts Fund, which advocated for integration of the arts into core curriculum. He was also crucial in the advancement of new music and introducing music to young people, which we'll see later. He filled many roles in his life: conductor, composer, pianist, and teacher. He died on October 14th, 1990 of a heart attack.

Bernstein, the Pianist

Leonard Bernstein in 1971.
Leonard Bernstein

Before he was a conductor and composer, Bernstein was an accomplished pianist. He was well known for his performances of fellow American Aaron Copland's music, especially the Piano Variations. However, he did not make a living as a concert pianist, instead working odd music jobs like accompanist for comedy troupes, transcriber, and arranger.

Like we noted earlier, his development was unremarkable. He took piano lessons and attended public school. He got his first piano from his aunt, who was going through a divorce and needed a place to store it. From all accounts he was good enough to be a concert pianist, and was known to conduct from the piano at times. But he decided on a different path for his musical journey, as we'll see.

Bernstein, the Conductor

It is as a conductor that historians hold Bernstein in such high regard. He began as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, having been appointed the role, mostly because during the War there weren't a lot of capable musicians. He made his debut as a fill-in at Carnegie Hall in 1943, when the guest conductor for the afternoon performance fell ill. The New York Times thought enough of his debut to run a front page article about it, and his career began.

While he conducted as guest or director for other orchestras, including the New York Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he is best remembered for his work with the New York Philharmonic. He started the Young People's Concerts, which were a series of educational concerts aimed at music appreciation, shown on CBS.

He premiered a number of tremendously influential works, including Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie, Ives' Symphony No. 2, and Copland's Connotations, among others. Near the end of his life he conducted Beethoven's 9th symphony (the Ode to Joy one) to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was particularly well known for his renditions of Mahler's symphonies, helping to bring these back into vogue.

Bernstein, the Composer

Bernstein was extremely well respected as a composer for musical theater. Candide is a complex and striking operetta, and bridges the gap between opera and musical theater. His other musicals include On the Town (from which the well-known song New York, New York comes from), Wonderful Town, and the famous West Side Story. He wrote a film score for the movie On the Waterfront. He was nominated for an Oscar, but did not win, though it was well received by critics. He later rewrote the piece as a symphonic suite for performance.

Leonard Bernstein in 1955.
Leonard Bernstein

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